just trying to keep score.

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“And the strange thing was: I knew that most people didn’t see her as I did — if anything, found her a bit odd-looking with her off-kilter walk and her spooky redhead pallor. For whatever dumb reason I had always flattered myself that I was the only person in the world who really appreciated her — that she would be shocked and touched and maybe even come to view herself in a whole new light if she knew just how beautiful I found her. But this had never happened. Angrily, I concentrated on her flaws, wilfully studying the photographs that caught her at awkward ages and less flattering angles — long nose, thin cheeks, her eyes (despite their heartbreaking color) naked-looking with their pale lashes — Huck-Finn plain. Yet all these aspects were — to me — so tender and particular they moved me to despair.”

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

For all of Tartt’s talents, with description and prose and mood, with combining genre and fascination with high art (which I think is one of her signal talents, writing books that are both delicious in a not-quite-pulpy way while using art as an integral part of her story, giving the reader the assurance they’re reading something improving, nontrivial, that might otherwise seem, um, trashy), The Goldfinch isn’t without flaws. Plenty of other people have pointed out the book’s reliance on coincidence, which doesn’t bother me nearly as much as other things — and this bit, about Pippa, who our narrator Theo is unquestioningly in love with, highlights the worst of it. Because Theo really hardly ever is around Pippa — as children, before the big caesura between Theo’s childhood and adulthood in the middle of the book, we see them together for maybe two meetings; in the latter half, she just drifts about on the edges, a target for Theo’s obsessions. There’s nothing wrong, really, with a McGuffin or an empty vessel, even in a book that’s this full of them, although one would rather like Tartt to have written a female character for this book who’s not a paragon or a cipher. But it’s hard to square the very precise, balanced self-loathing of this bit, which is a beautifully done bit of character, with the absolute blank space he’s writing about — both Pippa, and his relationship with her.

Oh, and I’ve lost the citation, and Google isn’t helping me much: but whoever pointed out their irritation at the use of dashes (in terms of The Goldfinch being beautifully designed, and horribly marred by all the ugly dashes) was absolutely completely right, and typing out a paragraph or two of this just confirms. And you understand: I’m no stranger to a gratuitous en dash.

Little Brown 10.22.13

November 24, 2013, 9:30am  Comments

edward st. aubyn, at last

"Whereas ordinary generosity came from a desire to give something to someone, Eleanor’s philanthropy had come from a desire to give everything to anyone. The sources of the compulsion were complex. There was the repetition syndrome of a disinherited daughter; there was a rejection of materialism and snobbery of her mother’s world; and there was the basic shame at having any money at all, an unconscious drive to make her net worth and her self-worth converge in a perfect zero."

This is the precision of St. Aubyn’s observation. It goes without saying that every idol has feet of clay; the horror of his characters’ experiences, despite the comforting, swaddling, enabling buffer of privilege confirms that. But the careful and patient exploration of exactly what sort of clay those feet are composed of constitutes the major part of his wit.

FSG 02.07.12

May 03, 2012, 5:10pm   Comments

szalay continued

“(An interesting idea, when she thought about it — her perception of how she felt. What was the difference between the perception of how she felt, and how she did feel? In what sense did her feelings exist when she wasn’t perceiving them — when she wasn’t feeling them?)”

Working to justify sleeping with James, after telling him she needed a break from sleeping with him. Like so much of this book, precision lavished on the second order, with the basic things left undefined. Mind you, this does not make it a bad book; instead, it’s an interesting case, a specific and particular way of getting to an effect, a metaphor. But it’s very intentionally not trying to sweep you away.

January 25, 2012, 11:00am   Comments

giraldi continued

“Deidre mailed me a study of the USA and its many guns by a bearded scholar: without a Detroit automobile and a firearm an American is just a Frenchman.”

Like this: so very close to a great line. Even reads well. But the ‘Detroit automobile’ thing only works if you’re not picturing this in the present, or if you consider an F-150 an automobile.

In other words, like the voice-driven comic novel, it privileges the joke over its accuracy, or the form over the content.

August 04, 2011, 12:00pm   Comments

wolff continued

“But Raquel expressed disapproval at the presence of the old mill in Wick, about which Theo was quite curious. He wanted to see inside, he said, someday. It simply didn’t fit into her notion of what our small town should be. It was, indeed, the only remaining shred of evidence that at one time Wick had held a promise of industry and economy. It was the ghost of our utility; at one time, there was a reason to move here, and many people did. There would have been nothing odd about such a decision, back then.”

This closes one chapter. Note that, as pretty as “the ghost of our utility” is, the scramble in the first couple of sentences, as pronouns switch off clumsily: this isn’t the fifteen-year-old’s precocity anymore, but an author’s imprecision. The next chapter closes with:

“I thought of the power of witchcraft. At least one citizen in my small town might have believed a spell had been successfully cast on me, in that pale green house on the hill. When we are truly under a spell we are freed from a certain natural instinct for self-preservation, and we might prick ourselves with pins over and over and over, at another’s behest. We have been steeled for this, by the force of another’s will and wit and craft. How else could I have withstood all that I did?”

The thing is, between all of this heavyhanded foreboding, there’s a sharply-drawn little vignette, where the quiet jock walks the teenaged waitress home from the diner, that’s much stronger than any of this self-dramatizing spooky stuff. That scene’s the clearest Wolff’s been for many many chapters, and probably clearer than anything that comes after. And that’s a pity; whether one chooses to read The Beginners as a ghost story, or as an unreliable narrator using a ghost story as an excuse for her own behavior, the actual evidence, the events portrayed in the book, are contradictory. This isn’t The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, where the keys to the plot twist exist from the start; instead, the events are a muddle with a dream sequence or two thrown in. Which makes all the effort put into menace and portent a poor investment, with nothing concrete coming in return.

July 05, 2011, 12:00pm   Comments

ball continued

“Much of his life in the past years was a matter of making it so that things could not get worse. He tried to, through a series of habits, insulate and barricade the life that he and Molly lived, so that it could not be invaded or altered.”

But The Curfew is the best thing I think Ball has written, certainly the best thing of his I’ve read, because it combines his specific sensibility, and his ability to balance precision and vagueness in his diction and imagery, with a simple structure and a clarity in the emotional stakes of the story. I expect that much of this preference comes from my need for a plot on which to hang writing. But this novel — which starts off detailing William’s life as it’s been built around his mute daughter Molly, guarding her and protecting her from the dangers of the adult world, and then shifts in its second half when William drops his guard — demonstrates, enormously, the benefit of that bit of structure and starch for Ball’s fine writing. This is the book I wanted from this writer.

June 30, 2011, 12:00pm   Comments